Hilo, Hawaii: City of Rain and Fire

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Imiloa Astronomy Center's design mimics the area's largest mountains. 
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 Dancers at the Merrie Monarch festival, Hilo, Hawaii.

A place where nature rules and people learn to be resilient, Hilo is located near the base of two volcanoes — Mauna Kea, presently dormant, and Mauna Loa, which is still active. This rain forest community — survivor of two tsunamis in the past 60 years — may be nature-challenged, but the region’s breathtaking waterfalls, lush forests and tropical gardens make it easy to believe paradise is just around the next bend.

The community is a mix of Polynesian, Asian and European cultures, celebrated with festivals such as the Merrie Monarch Festival — which is the world’s most authentic and prestigious hula competition — and Pacific Rim cuisine, a cross-cultural menu featuring fruit salsas, fresh vegetables and sizzling, just-caught seafood. Hilo enjoys a rich diversity of cultures and cuisines, plus a wealth of parks, waterfalls and tropical reserves, including Lili’uokalani Park and Gardens and the nearby Volcanoes National Park. With more than 200 local farmers and craftspeople, the Hilo Farmer’s Market is a cornucopia of exotic fruit and tropical flowers that’s open all year, “from dawn until it’s gone.”

What makes Hilo’s location on 93-mile-wide Hawaii Island, also known as the Big Island, special for many residents is its deep-green potential. This vision, strongly advocated by the students and faculty at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, is steadily progressing.

Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corp., which processes 90 tons of nuts every day, burns waste husks and shells to provide 60 percent of the company’s electricity. Puna Geothermal Venture taps the island’s vast underground cauldron of volcanic heat, continuously converting steam into 30 megawatts of energy — about a third of the total renewable energy generated in the wind- and solar-rich state of Hawaii. Though residents living near the facility have raised serious concerns about environmental issues and practices associated with Puna’s production, the area’s remarkable energy potential provides convincing motivation to overcome the challenges.

Spectacular volcanoes define Hilo’s geography. Kilauea is one of the world’s most active volcanoes, erupting continuously since 1983. Mauna Kea rises more than 32,000 feet from its base on the Pacific floor — taller than Mount Everest. At its summit is one of the most important astronomic observatories in the world, and atop the massive Mauna Loa is a laboratory that has recorded since 1958 a radical increase in the Earth’s atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, visitors can often watch red hot lava flowing into the ocean — the timeless phenomenon that created the Hawaiian islands.

One of Hilo’s newer attractions, the Imiloa Astronomy Center, is housed beneath imposing titanium cones that represent the three largest mountains on the Big Island. The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden is a living preserve of tropical and native plants located in a verdant valley near Hilo. “It’s the only large, open-air, coastal garden with thousands of orchids blooming any time of the year,” says administrator Kate Logan. “Around every curving section of trail is a surprise: a waterfall, a view of the ocean, or a large, hand-carved statue of a Hawaiian deity.”

Stats: Hilo, Hawaii

Population: 45,608

Climate: Tropical rain forest; 126 inches avg. annual precip.; January avg. high: 83 degrees; July avg. high: 83 degrees

Median Household Income: $70,516

Median Home Price: $259,376

Check out the other towns featured in our 2012 installment of 8 Great Places You’ve (Maybe) Never Heard Of.